The Nations of the Earth

Yoram Hazony at the Hudson Institute and 'The Virtue of Nationalism'

Yoram Hazony / Hudson Institute
September 8, 2018

By the time the fire alarms sound at the Hudson Institute a few minutes into Tuesday afternoon, dozens of protesters have already been arrested for disrupting proceedings at the opening Kavanaugh confirmation hearing across town. So, though no one bothers to move even a little toward the exits, when the alarm turns out to be false one wonders, if just for a moment, whether this wasn't a deliberate delay. After all, nationalism is, at least to so many these days, such a dirty word.

But according to Hudson this is the "Age of Nationalism," and there to discuss nationalism, and his new book on the subject, The Virtue of Nationalism, is Israeli philosopher—and president of the Herzl Institute—Yoram Hazony.

Hastily if carefully finishing the precarious boxed lunches emblematic of D.C.'s daytime lecture circuit—the poor nerds must be fed, and will take what's given them—the assorted associates, analysts, fellows, directors, Free Beacon assistant editors, and professors find their seats and the conversation begins.

Hudson's Walter Russell Mead is moderating the Q&A: pointed Questions from William A. Galston, of Brookings, and careful Answers from Hazony. It is his book's day of publication, which as Mead points out and the audience questions later prove means that, barring us advanced-copy types, most of the room has not read the book. So, they had best begin at the beginning.

Hazony takes that more to heart than most: His political theory starts in Genesis, or at latest Exodus. But before he gets to that there's the why of this conversation and the why of the book. He wants to defend nationalism—"A principled stance that sees the world as best governed when nations are allowed their independence"—and so, really, to help save nations from the dustbin of history. The enemy is imperialism and all the universalist doctrines that motivate it.

Galston asks, what is a nation anyway? Hazony reaches for scripture, and since we're all speaking English here, King James's. The KJV's use of "nation" created the English-speaking world's sense of the word, he says. A nation arises out of the smaller units of tribes and clans, and so has the capacity for internal diversity within a commonality of culture—say language, religion, or collective memory. They usually have a historical land. They institutionalize their mutual loyalty, the moral sentiment Hazony puts at the heart of healthy political life, in response to adversity. Hazony denies that nations are essentially racial; rather, like the biblical Ruth, their covenants can be joined.

As the conversation continues it is obvious the question at hand is more than, "What is a better way of ordering world society, independent nations or (essentially imperial according to Hazony) inter- and supra-national political organizations?" The question is also, or perhaps is actually, "How should we even think about politics?"

We are used to a world of political theorizing that ignores Thucydides' first description of his writing—"not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment"—to make a fetish of imitating his History of the Peloponnesian War "as a possession for all time." Add that desire to be definitive and world-historical to a Cartesian or Kantian epistemology that believes humanity can extrapolate from within themselves to rationally necessary philosophical conclusions true for all times and in all places and you have a recipe for an end of history.

Hazony, though, sees an alternate thread running through political thought, particularly in England. It grounds itself in a particular nation and tradition, so is therefore empirical, in order to examine the development of its laws, institutions, and liberties and preserve what has worked for the common good, and is thus conservative. It's an Anglo political gospel of Johns: John Fortescue, John Selden, John Stuart Mill. Plus Edmund Burke, of course.

Galston sees the heights of the division, and keeps conversation tending that way, yet still grounded enough for the audience. Why is Hazony so down on Locke? What about the United States? "If Jews are the Chosen People, Americans are the Choosing People," isn't that so? Aren't we a whole nation of Ruths, a nation of the nations? That doesn't sound imperial.

Hazony has a dim view of Locke—like Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed—because Hazony sees politics as cooperative, among groups, not consensual, among individuals. The nation comes from the tribe, the tribe from the family. Have you ever found a solitary person in the state of nature? Individual freedom is found within national freedom. Free states are not made by free individuals but a concert of tribes. This is a world of collective self-determination, not autonomy.

And the United States? Hazony wants to know where the City on a Hill went. Somewhere along the way we became a global hegemon. He partly blames the interpretation of the U.S. project as a propositional one, rather than as continuance of the English tradition. Perhaps unconsciously differing with Jonah Goldberg's use of "the Miracle" in his recent Suicide of the West to describe the material benefits of modernity's liberal settlement, Hazony remarks, "Americans do a great disservice to their capacity for conservatism when they say there was a miracle in 1787."

Hazony seems more likely to sympathize with the older Suicide of the West, by James Burnham, or even with Spengler's Downfall of the West. For Hazony, the West of enlightenment liberalism is unsustainable, and its idea of universal reason is decidedly not universal, but imperial. In his book and his talk Tuesday, Hazony suggests the Anglo-American and European nations have imposed not just their laws and customs, but their worldviews, too, on the globe.

If that sounds like a recipe for relativism, it's because it could be. What are we left then? Revelation. Sinai and the Ten Commandments (Hazony prefers "Precepts"). There is a reason the professor's prior books include The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture and God and Politics in Esther.

Hazony writes and speaks not for all time, but as an Anglophonic Israeli—in a tradition, for his nation. He is decidedly not presenting a new set of universalist values. He is defending the good of nations both because he thinks that's true, they are good, and because it buttresses a defense of Israel's self-determination and an older conservative vision of the United States. But as Mead's perplexity forced Hazony to clarify at Hudson, for him, there is no ideal global arrangement, no quilt of national states we can stitch together as alternative to empire after sufficient reflection on abstract justice. It's not sitting out there somewhere waiting for us to reason to. No, history is messy and justice is something you do. If the age of nationalism became a world of nationalism, I imagine Hazony hopes it will bring us a little closer to the vision of Micah 4:4-5:

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

Published under: Book reviews , Feature